The Uses of Diversity

by Kevin Currie-Knight

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Imagine that you are in charge of some workplace. You look around and notice that while you are located in an area chock full of diversity of all kinds – racial, religious, and the like – your staff and customers are quite homogenous. Suppose that in your case, you are concerned that your geographic area is racially/ethnically diverse but your staff and clientele seem very white. Something is wrong.

You talk with your colleagues and you decide to create diversity initiatives aimed at recruiting and retaining non-white (and otherwise more diverse) employees and clients. At one of your collective brainstorming meetings, where you are having some trouble formulating a plan for doing this, one of your colleagues asks: why exactly are we trying to increase diversity? What is our reason(s) for caring about diversity? And she asks this non-rhetorically. She thinks that getting clear on the purposes diversity is supposed to serve will help you determine what your initiatives should look like.

Just kidding. She doesn’t ask this. No one ever does. And that’s a problem. Instead of asking the serious question about what reasons you and your company have for caring about diversity, you do what everyone does: treat the answer as so obvious and the question so potentially insulting as to render the question unworthy of being asked. Instead, you plow ahead and compile a list of things you can do to increase diversity.

The problem with your approach – and not asking the question about what your purposes are – is that you might end up with a scattered list of items that may even unintentionally conflict with one another. For example, you might recommend that hiring committees go out of their way to seek out minority candidates and that hiring committees never explicitly consider the minority status of the candidates they went out of their way to invite, based on minority status. Or you might suggest that minority employees – because they are minority employees – be placed on administrative committees, so that these committees have diverse perspective, and yet also endeavor to make sure not to unduly burden these employees with extra work because of their minority status. And along the same lines, you might direct your organization to focus advertising on specific minority groups, while also making sure not to treat the groups you are specially targeting differently on the basis of their minority status.

“Why do we care about diversity, and what are our purposes for wanting to increase it?” is not a silly question. Its purpose is not to signal that there are no good reasons for diversity that could withstand scrutiny. Quite the opposite in fact. There are many good reasons to seek and expand diversity in a variety of areas, but because there are many, some reasons may not be consistent others. Being clear about how you think increased diversity benefits your organization will go a long way toward figuring out how best to achieve diversity-related goals.

Let’s go back to when you were looking around your organization and noticing how racially/ethnically homogeneous it is. There are many reasons you might be troubled by this:

[1] You care that your policies for hiring and for appealing to customers are fair. If the geographical area you serve is diverse, a lack of corresponding diversity in your organization could indicate that these policies are not as fair as you thought. Here, diversity’s value is as an indicator of fair and inclusive policies.

[2] You could care about diversity for reasons of morality or justice. You know that many non-white people have gotten – and still get – an unfair shake in life. You want to make sure that your company gives those traditionally marginalized people opportunities they may not otherwise get. Here, diversity’s value is a moral one where increased diversity means a “redistribution” of opportunity.

[3] You could care about diversity for reasons Scott Paige has discovered via mathematical modeling: namely, that more diverse (in certain ways) groups and firms tend to generate better solutions to problems than non-diverse ones. Here, diversity’s value lies in its ability to improve outcomes for the organization.

[4] On related grounds, you could value diversity because you value the difference in perspective and viewpoint that you think minority hires/customers will bring. Here, diversity’s value is that it expands the pool of perspectives within your organization.

[5] You could care about diversity for aesthetic reasons or because you think its appearance will attract others toward your organization. Here, the value of diversity is in its aesthetic addition to your organization.

Notice that while one could care about any one of these individually or collectively, the differences between them are important. The biggest difference is between [1] and [2] and [3] – [5]. While [1] and [2] are both considerations having to do with diversity, neither involves attributing some special quality to members of diverse groups or seeking out members who have specific qualities beyond the racial or ethnic category into which they fit. [3] – [5], however, treat diversity in a more substantial way. Specifically, they advocate for diversity precisely because minority-group membership brings with it some unique and distinctive benefit. 

If you care about diversity for reasons of justice [2] or because its presence ensures that your procedures are fair [1], you will not mind if your diverse hires are indistinguishable from their white colleagues with regard to anything but skin color. Oh my! They all live in the same neighborhood as their white colleagues, come from the same backgrounds as their white colleagues, and don’t really have ideas or perspectives that differentiate them from their white colleagues! If your diversity initiatives were motivated by [1] or [2], this will be okay with you. Your goals will still have been achieved by the “mere” presence of racial and ethnic minorities in your organization.

If you care about [3] – [5] however, the realization that your non-white hires and customers are virtually identical to their white counterparts may be troubling. It would almost defeat the point of the diversity initiatives! After all, you hired them specifically because their racial/ethnic background gave them something – a unique perspective or an aesthetic – that your heretofore white organization was missing.

It is very possible to care about expanding diversity for several reasons. You might care that your environment is diverse both as a sign that your workplace is fair and inclusive [1] and because you think diversity increases the likelihood of diversity in perspectives [4]. But if you do, you should realize the potential tension here that comes from figuring out whether or to what degree you should now treat your non-white hires as somehow different (in perspective) than your white hires. Is it ever okay to ask a black colleague, for instance, what things look like from her (presumably “black”) perspective?

This isn’t just a theoretical worry. I teach diversity-related courses in a college of education and I’ve had several non-white students tell me (usually after class or in an office hour) that they sometimes feel in their classes like “the face of the race,” or the representative of their minority group. The tension also plays out when minority-group members want to be treated as everyone else is – that is, without regard to their ethnicity or race – but find themselves treated differently even by the most well-meaning colleagues and policies. (“I just got asked to serve on the – you guessed it! – diversity committee. I was also asked if I’d mentor so-and-so, who happens to be the only other person of my ethnicity in the department. Who’d have thought!”)

This isn’t all bad. In the face of diversity, there is always a tension between ignoring difference so as to treat everyone equally and acknowledging difference so as to treat others equitably. Martha Minow calls this “the dilemma of difference,” and she frames it as a dilemma because there isn’t always a clear answer to it, even in particular cases. Maybe the non-white student does have a different perspective that comes from being non-white that we’d unjustly overlook if we did not ask him. Maybe the non-white employee appreciates being on the diversity committee and has good reason to think her presence will do good there. But the opposite is also possible: maybe it just makes them feel more singled out in ways they’d rather not be.

In the example of minority college students who grow to feel like “the face of the race,” I worry that this is because universities care about [1] and [2], but also really care about [4]. I’ve been at meetings around diversity initiatives where [1] and [2] generally seem to be the primary goals, but [4] creeps its way in, in talk about how we need “diverse perspectives’ in classrooms and the like. There is nothing wrong with [4], but it does mean caring about diversity in a different way than [1], and the the message to minority students is that their presence in classrooms is desired because of their “diverse perspectives.”

I’m not trying to give answers here. My point simply is that all of this should be talked about before and during the process of constructive diversity initiatives. What does diversity mean to us? Only when we know that can we design coherent and effective strategies for encouraging the kinds of diversity we care about without traipsing into counterproductive side-effects.

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I illustrate this rationale to students via a documentary film called Coded Bias. It is about how racial and sexist bias gets inadvertently encoded in facial recognition software. The film traces the problem back to data sets the AI uses to learn facial recognition, data sets skewed to favor males and white faces. This oversight, the film suggested, stood a chance of being noticed had not the teams of scientists who compiled and used the data sets were not themselves overwhelmingly white and male. We use the film as an excellent example of systemic racism and how it could be assuaged at least partly by more diverse representation in the teams who create systems.

If this rationale seems weak, it shouldn’t. A personal way of illustrating its importance comes from my time on the Board of Directors of a private school in Durham, NC. As part of our mission, we aspired to have a student body reflective of the racially diverse city it is in, but noticed that we were having difficulty persuading non-white families to enroll. Some feedback we got from those families indicated that having a more diverse student body would have made them more likely to enroll.


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9 responses to “The Uses of Diversity”

  1. Animal Symbolicum

    As interesting as the differences are between 1-2 and 3-5, their similarity is also interesting. In practice, each favors statistical averages over individuals, which has the effect of either burdening or benefitting individuals simply because they fall into certain categories that are often irrelevant to the position.

    For example, all else being equal, a white male will be burdened (by not getting a position) simply because he is white and male, the idea being that his being white and his being male likely afforded him advantages or saved him from disadvantages, since white people and males on average are afforded advantages or saved from disadvantages. But the question of whether the individual white male was indeed afforded relevant advantages or saved from relevant disadvantages by his maleness or whiteness is never even asked — one reason being that the question can only be answered by an exhaustive empirical investigation on which no one is willing to embark.

    Why it’s permissible to do demonstrable harm to an individual because of that individual’s hypothetical advantages (based on conclusions drawn from statistical patterns) has not been adequately answered, in my opinion. (I am not alone in thinking this. Witness the SEP article on affirmative action.)

    So perhaps we should be asking a logically prior question: Diversity of what?

  2. Animal Symbolicum

    I should also say: I think this is a really helpful articulation of this range of issues, Kevin.

  3. Benjamin L. Perez

    And/or – (re)read: Thomas Sowell’s book Discrimination and Disparities (2019).

  4. Doug Crites

    Here is in the Seattle tech industry if the tension is between meritocracy and diversity – the former wins out. I have worked at both Amazon and Microsoft and, at both places, the lengthy and intense interview process is clearly (if not explicitly) designed to enable them to narrow it down to the sharpest and most knowledgeable candidates.

    So, if they ask you to clean up some code they write on the board or they ask you to rewrite some poorly worded error message, they don’t have diversity in mind as a goal. And if, as a consequence, Amazon ends up being 30% Asian, they will roll with it.

    And they would not accept that Marshon might bring a unique black perspective to data modeling or to requirements analysis. They would, I think, be most likely to accept #2 on your list. But this would not change their approach to recruiting or interviewing. It would, and to some degree does, lead them to provide money for certain educational programs and policies.

    As I noted on another essay the other day, if a change is coming it will have to occur long before they are being grilled in some conference room at Microsoft. The change will have to take place in the local schools and in the general culture.

  5. Bharath

    Agree thinking and talking about why diversity matters is better than just assuming it is clear, or worse, judging people as if any questioning is retrograde.

    But not clear talking about why diversity matters will help much either. Will any discussion, no matter how open minded, lead to any agreement or even clarification about whether an organization wants diversity for (1) above rather than (4) and so on? Imagine people having a similar conversation about why justice or equality or freedom matters? For each of these as well there are many conflicting reasons why they might be valued. It’s not just that congress or an organization isn’t going to have philosophical conversations about how to balance the conflicting reasons. Rather, it’s not clear the philosophical conversations clarifying the reasons get anywhere, except for people who intrinsically like having such conversations.

    Part of what misleads perhaps is taking the classroom as a model of how people can engage on these topics. A classroom is a highly structured space with lots of ideals basically imposed by the power dynamics with the teacher. Without this structure, most of the time in the world there is no way to have a sustained meaningful conversation even for 15 minutes let alone talk about conflicting reasons for abstract ideals.

    So what can help? My sense is it’s inspiration of leadership more than discussion. The recent dialogue with Sheena Mason was awesome. It was great to see two thoughtful people having the kind of subtle, searching conversation around race that is too rare. This is not an ideal of how to talk and listen that most people will come close to, nor I suspect can it be taught much. Most people are followers. Putting them in the role of thinking deeply leads mainly to confusion. Better might be the strategic and practical question of how people like Kevin and Sheena, and also a site like this that Dan has created, get heard more.

  6. Kevin, I find your pieces sometimes maddening abstract. Here’s a concrete example, and I really would like to hear your opinion on it.

    As I mentioned in another reaction (to your piece on toleration), my wife teaches mathematics. Her students are 16-18 yrs. old and the level is quite high. They are the students who go into engineering, physics, mathematics, medicine, chemistry etc.

    Socio-economically, her students are diverse. The best student she ever had, came from a working class background and went on to become the youngest professor of mathematics ever to get tenure at the local university.

    Ethnically diverse – not so much. She’s had students with Asian backgrounds (good or very good without exception), some Muslim students (sometimes excellent, sometimes less so) but not one single black student ever made it to her classroom.

    So let’s say her school wants to increase ethnic diversity in her classroom and the motivation is 1) the school wants to be fair and inclusive. The problem here is that “fair” and “inclusive” are different things. Mathematics is fair, but it’s not inclusive. You’re good at it, or you aren’t. It’s a mountain you can – or cannot – climb. No amount of “encouraging” will get you to the top, if you don’t have the talent and the stamina.

    I know some people claim that mathematics is inherently unfair towards some minorities, as it stresses abstraction, rigour etc., but every mathematician I know will tell you that without abstraction and rigour there is no mathematics. And by the way, it would be pretty racist to suggest that some ethnicities can’t handle abstraction or rigour. So 1) is out of the question.

    Well, ok, take 2) you care about diversity for reasons of morality or justice. The problem here is that morality and justice never have delivered one single mathematical theorem. Mathematics is not about what is moral or just. 2) doesn’t work.

    What about 3) diversity generating better solutions? Mathematics has a history of ages. Better solutions don’t come easily. Doing mathematics, you’re competing with Archimedes, Newton, Gauss, Weierstrass etc. I wouldn’t know what a “better solution” is for my wife’s students. They are learning to solve problems that have been solved years, often centuries ago. It’s part of learning mathematics.

    4) the value of different perspectives. That’s an interesting one. My wife values diversity in this sense. Some students are intuitive thinkers who see the result and then fill in the details later, some are rigorous thinkers who explore a problem step by step, some are algebraic thinkers, others have a geometric approach. You need them all in a classroom. However, this a strictly mathematical form of diversity and I don’t know of any link with ethnic backgrounds. Is it true that some ethnicities have brilliant intuitions (that turn out to be correct) while others are plodders who find the solution with sheer serendipity? Not to my knowledge.

    5) aesthetic reasons. The parents of my wife’s students want to know if their daughter or son is good enough at mathematics to go into engineering, medicine, chemistry etc. They don’t care about aesthetics.

    In other words: none of the motivations you offer for diversity seem to be relevant for this concrete situation.

  7. A very good point, and hopefully, Kevin will respond. I am far less impressed than he is by the reasons offered for the value of “diversity,” including 1-5. Indeed, at this point, when I hear the word, I am more likely to be inclined against whatever is being proposed than in favor of it..

  8. As a mathematician (retired), I agree with this.

    I do want diversity. But it is mostly what you call “mathematical diversity” that matters here.

  9. Strawman

    That’s a classroom. Not a job. Your example doesn’t apply here. With some jobs, they can train you.